By now, you know I made it down the mountain. The question that remains is how. My comedian readers would say that I made it down the slopes of Haleakala one step at a time, and that I did. But each step grew more painful the longer the day went on. Two weeks later, I still gaze at my feet and wonder whether two or three of the multi-hued purple and blue toenails on my feet will stay or go. The descent out of Haleakala Crater descended a healthy 6,130 feet over 8.6 miles, and it turned out trimming my toenails and buying hiking shoes one size too big wasn’t enough to prevent what athletes call turf toe.
But who wants to talk about my toenails? Besides me?
It was still misting and raining and the wind was still gusting when we left Paliku, and that, as it turns out, made for pleasant hiking weather. The cloud cover protected us from the sun. The cool temperatures meant we didn’t overheat. And I got to use my rain gear. I love when everything in my pack earns its weight in carrying. And, so, when it was obvious the rain wasn’t going to stop any time soon, I had no problem pulling out my rain jacket, rain pants and rain cover for my backpack. (Later, I was just as happy to put the three zip ties, five feet of parachute cord and small roll of duct tape to help fellow hiker, JR, put his boots back together. Anyone who lives in Hawaii for any length of time knows what humidity can do to adhesive.)
As we walked single-file down-down-down the trail, we left behind the subalpine world of dense shrubs and meadows of thick grasses where nene seemed to thrive and headed deep into the rainforest where native forest birds lived. We may have seen a couple of Hawaii’s famous honeycreepers here, possibly the ‘apapane or ‘amakihi, but they flitted too quickly and always seemed to be silhouetted. For a moment, I wished I’d packed my super-duper, birding binoculars, but, then, I remembered how much they weighed.
According to the Haleakala National Park Service brochure, annual rainfall ranges from 120 inches to 400 or more here, giving rise to an intact, native forest of ohia and enormous koa trees and an understory of mamane, a‘ali‘i, pukiawe, ‘ohelo, hapu’u tree ferns, and mosses and lichen galore. The place dripped with greenery. Greenery growing on top of greenery. This healthy, relatively undisturbed ecosystem provided a hospitable habitat for the honeycreepers, some of which use long, delicate and curved beaks to suck the nectar of flowers, while others evolved to possess a stout, overextended bill to crush twigs in order to find its preferred food of beetle larvae.
The honeycreepers deserve recognition. The evolution of many species from a single ancestor is called “adaptive radiation” by biologists. Darwin’s much-publicized Galapagos finches are one example. The generally accepted number of Galapagos finches is 14. That is, 14 different species of finches evolved from a single ancestor. In Hawaii, the number of honeycreeper species currently known to science is—wait for it—52. More than three times those finches in the Galapagos. I cannot imagine Darwin’s reaction and the scientific discoveries he’d have realized if he’d only made it to Hawaii.
Speaking of science, I kept thinking of Isabella Bird on my hike down the mountain. She was not a scientist but a mere adventurous female who spent six months in Hawaii way back in 1873—in her 40s. She even summited Haleakala, peered down into the very same crater in which I descended, and wrote a long, descriptive letter (and, later, a book titled Six Months in the Sandwich Islands
) to her sister back in England about what she saw:
The crater was clear of fog and clouds, and lighted in every part by the risen sun. The whole, with its contents, can be seen at a single glance, though its girdling precipices are nineteen miles in extent. Its huge, irregular floor is 2000 feet below; New York might be hidden away within it, with abundant room to spare; and more than one of the numerous subsidiary cones which uplift themselves solitary or in clusters through the area, attain the height of Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh. On the north and east are the Koolau and Kaupo Gaps, as deep as the crater, through which oceans of lava found their way to the sea. It looks as if the volcanic forces, content with rending the mountaintop in twain, had then passed into an endless repose.
I guess I had always thought these volcanic islands exploded out of the sea in one gigantic eruption. Boom. Land. Island. Wash your hands. Done.
But what I have learned about these Hawaiian Islands is that scientists call them shield volcanoes. They ooze and build slowly over time. The oozing starts and stops intermittently like a running toilet (pardon me: I’m married to a plumber). Thousands and even millions of years may have slipped off the calendar between effusions—and some volcanologists say it’s time for Haleakala to ooze again. In between lava flows, early colonizers in the form of seeds, spores, insects, spiders, birds and small plants brought life to the islands, while at the same time, wind and rain and surf started eroding the islands.
Erosion. That’s what scientists now say created Haleakala Crater—not an explosive caldera. Not a volcanic force “rending the mountaintop in twain,” as the folks in Izzy’s time suggested. Erosion continues today. It works like this: Trade winds coming from the northeast get trapped among the tall mountains on Maui’s windward side, gathering into clouds, from which rain falls. Over millions of years, the rain erodes the rock, creating deep valleys and gulches. In the case of Ko’olau and Kaupo Gaps, when the two river valleys met up—and gave way—Haleakala Crater was formed. I presume it continues to grow in size today. Maybe even the whole of New York with its own exploding population in the 139 years since Izzy visited could still fit inside the crater today.
The point about science is this: It changes. Maybe someday, someone will read these words—these so-called facts—and chide, “They didn’t know anything back then.” I expect so.
Science isn’t the only thing in life that changes. The reason I’d signed up for this adventure started as a way to be in service, to give back to the place in which I live, to pick bull thistles. Then, as the adventure neared, and I discovered the blue moon would rise on our first night inside Haleakala, I got all excited about that. But I pretty much forgot about the blue moon by the time we started hiking down Kaupo Gap in the rain. There were just too many other things happening—blooming ahinahina, rare native birds, blackened toenails, and new friends. That is, the entirety of a new experience was forming—one complete with unexpected delights as well as challenges, discomforts and disappointments—and it was the combination of all these elements, not any one, that guaranteed the adventure would be one that stuck. There was no way this three-day adventure into Haleakala would fall into the abyss of forgotten memory.
Science. Expectations. We’re probably all familiar with changes in weather. The rain stopped about the time we hit the band of koa trees, under which we rested and ate lunch—peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me. I peeled off my rain jacket and pants. Soon, we would hit a fence, a park boundary, and our surroundings would change. We’d enter the dry forest zone, also known as a cattle ranch. The ranch owners are good friends of Haleakala National Park. They allow hikers access through their land to reach the park. However, there is a line drawn across the mountain—the fence—that illustrates without words how grazing changes a landscape. On one side, lush native forest; on the other vast open areas with a few big trees strewn across grassy fields. And cows. With a couple curious bulls thrown in to keep a hiker in step.